On the falling man

Markham and Richard are disagreeing about the famous WTC jumper photo. Markham notes:

The Falling Man is the perfect news photo. It’s clean and symmetrical; it has incredible impact on the reader; it portrays the horror of an event, a warzone disaster situation, without being sullied by debris, smoke, or facial expressions. We don’t need to see what he’s ecaping or what awaits him, it’s understood. That you can’t see the man’s face, or indeed pick out any features at all, draws you into speculation, and all of a sudden you’re thinking deeply about the photo; about the subject’s motivations; about the last minutes before he stepped out of the window frame into a freefall over New York.

Richard responds:

The image isn’t beautiful, it’s unbearable. Its clinical starkness, denuded of its explanation in its austerity, seems to lie. I agree with Markham that the image serves as an invitation, but precisely because it is so inadequate and so sickening. The untruth of the image is its false serentity and its artificial singularity. The gut reaction says – ‘no, it wasn’t clean, it wasn’t ethereal, it was sordid, fleshy, evil, and real’. It’s not art, it’s not beautiful, it was murder like never seen before.

I watched the documentary that Markham refers to in his post, a fascinating documentary it was. What I got most from it was that the writer of the original piece didn’t do his job. He went to a family and essentially told them it was their father, before he had looked at other photos that Richard Drew took of the same man. It strikes me that he should have done some proper research before even hinting to a family that the photo might represent their loved one.

That aside is the issue of printing the photo in the first place, which a paper in Pennsylvania did in fullness on September 12th 2001, much to the chagrin of many of their readers. What strikes me is that the photo is, as Markham describes, almost serene in its composure. Having seen the other photos taken seconds before, and seconds after, it was the most serene of photos that depict the man in various stages of falling. This points to the selection of the photographer rather than the serenity, or not, of the photographs.

This issue was raised in the past. Glenn Reynolds posted a photo and later removed it. I posted about Glenn’s posting back in 2003, where I linked to a different photograph of a jumper, perhaps less ‘artistic’ in nature.

I tend to agree with Markham on this one. Perhaps ‘beautiful’ is too strong a word, more like thought-provoking, provocative, even insightful. Richard though takes a different line, instead arguing that the image was cropped (it wasn’t), or that it doesn’t take in the surrounding events, that it is a picture in isolation. I don’t agree fully. We know the surrounding events. However by their nature photographs take things in apparent isolation, so I think readers are intelligent enough to take this on board.

The picture is exactly what it shows, the last moments of someone’s life. Because it happens in the modern context maybe we are more shocked by it, because we remember that day maybe we are more inclined to react emotionally. I often watch documentaries, and what strikes me is the uncontroversial nature of depicting the shooting dead of civilians – maybe if it’s more removed from the observer, and happened before the life time of the individual it makes the images more acceptable. I can’t count how many times I have watched real footage of people being killed by firing squad in Second World War documentaries. But have I been conditioned to think less of it because the footage is old, lacking colour and is a little jumpy?

Is the person about to be shot by Nazi soldiers any less gruesome than a person jumping from the World Trade Center? You are watching the last moments of someone’s life in both instances. And, as far as I’m concerned, both are compelling precisely because it is the last moments of someone’s life. And that’s the key word, artistic understandings aside, the photo is compelling.

Finally Richard’s assertion that it was ‘murder like never seen before’, while technically true, strikes me as somewhat misleading. Yes September 11th was a unique event, but then all events are unique. Murders happen all the time, wholescale murder has happened all too regularly in the history of humanity. As Westerners perhaps September 11th strikes home in a way no other murder has struck us – that it was people like us. Unfortunately murder just like this has happened countless times, not just in modern history – that it happened in our time, live on television, perhaps makes it more poignant and emotive.

If we were to take a recent example, Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer-prize winning photo from 1968, depicted the moment before the execution of a Viet Cong soldier Nguyen Van Lem, created equal controversy when it was published. It too depicts the last moments of a man’s life, but I ask myself, do I react the same to that photo as I do the jumper photo? The answer for me at least is no. It might have something to do with being unable to relate properly to the VC figure, or to the circumstances surrounding his death. But it remains that I feel more emotionally attached to photos relating to September 11 than to photos of Vietnam or World War Two.

In the end, it is an entirely subjective analysis as to what you find beautiful or not. I don’t find this particular jumper photo sickening as Richard does, to me it depicts a person who, facing the choice of death by inferno or being crushed by a building collapse, chose to end their life by jumping. It was essentially the only thing left for them to choose. So yes the photo does take some sense of isolation from events, as a result I would argue it be published without fear, but perhaps could be moderated by appearing with other photos from the same sequence – giving a better indication of the nature of the fall – a dreadful 10 seconds long.

14 thoughts on “On the falling man”

  1. It’s worth pointing out Richard’s appalling hypocrisy in publishing this emotive image and using it to bolster his claim to moral clarity about, inter alia, the (soon to be civil) war in Iraq, thereby co-opting the jumper and those bereaved by the events of September 11, 2001, into RW’s cynical and dishonest worldview mere days after his disgraceful attack on Howl at the Moon who illustrated a post about the moral bankruptcy of the Bush administration’s spurious war on terror with images of the funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq.

  2. I don’t necessarily agree. I take Richard’s post singularly on its merits. The subject was the ethics of the photo and its publication, and the debate was whether or not the photo has aesthetic value.

    Nowhere did either Markham, myself, or Richard mention the war in Iraq. It may have been alluded to retrospectively, but I don’t think that warrants the charges you make.

    Aside from that, I wouldn’t count Richard’s views as dishonest or cyncial, I think they are his honestly held beliefs.

    Emotions do run high on these issues, but I think it is best to remain rational, where there is no room for debate ad hominem.

  3. “It’s not art, it’s not beautiful, it was murder like never seen before.

    Without moral clarity regarding the immensity of the evil enacted that day, images of the carnage stand isolated and inexplicable. Considered as the brutal moment in the human drama that they are, we can begin to try to understand what happened that day.”

    What do you think Richard is talking about here? His moral clarity, which he has referred to time and time again as underpinning his support for the war in Iraq and, among other things, the need to refuse fair trials and freedom from torture to people he and his ilk deem prima facia guilty of certain crimes.

    I’m sure Richard’s beliefs are honestly held, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t cynical or that he isn’t regularly dishonest in his presentation of his arguments or that he doesn’t rely on points of view which are – journalistic and governmental – as has been exhaustively documented.

    Given that my view of Richard is entirely rational your implication that I’ve departed from reason is certainly ad hominem. Not only that but people like Richard tend to rely on the argument that their criticism of them is based on mere personal dislike rather than on the obviously disreputable positions they endorse. Richard is something of a dab hand at the ad hominem himself and has regularly misrepresented my own criticisms on his thread, in rather shrill terms I might add.

    Ironically, in characterising as ad hominem criticisms of his politics, Richard and co. undoubtedly gain succour from the fact that many of their opinions cannot but be based in flaws of character – amorality, snobbery etc. I suppose we could ignore that, but let’s not forget that these people have pretentions to influence and direct public policy in Ireland. If they’re putting themselves out there on that basis, they deserve the level of scrutiny which includes an analysis of what kind of people they actually are.

    I wouldn’t have posted here by the way, Gavin, except that Richard doesn’t allow me to comment on SN. I posted a similar comment merely observing that he had recently rather nastily criticised someone for doing what he was now doing, but unsurprisingly it didn’t appear.

    It’s all very well accusing me of breaching some spurious blogging civility, but I’m not the one who supports torture, incarceration without trial, kidnapping, the bombing of civilians and sneers at the victims of inequality of opportunity in our society despite his own unearned privileges.

    Our politicians seem to benefit from the same reluctance to criticise, and we have seen the results of that.

  4. What comments Richard does or does not allow on his blog is down to Richard. Where I do run into problems is when words are put into the mouths of others, where a sense of civility (I don’t believe it to be spurious) is lost, where a debate is not made on its merits. And I mean from either side.

    I dislike the right’s childish tendency to taunt people with whom they disagree, like rearrangements of words such as Guardian or Monbiot in some kind of nonsensical attempt to discredit the oppositon. I too dislike efforts by some on the left (not that I think you are specifically doing this Copernicus) to characterise their opponents as without morals, or lacking in a moral sensibility. Two sides simply disagree…why all the venom?

  5. I’m not on the left for a start. I’m in the middle. Some of those to the right of me like Jon Ihle, Richard Delevan, the Disillusioned Lefties, wulfbeorn, boris johnson, pj rourke, theodore dalrymple, my brother, some of my best friends and numerous others are good, interesting guys and I can understand why they make the arguments they do, even if I think they are being seduced into ultimately dangerous and unhelpful points of view (the current lack of credibility in dealing with Iran was a totally predictable outcome of the cynical invasion of Iraq for example, and we might all well end up paying for it), but Richard isn’t someone with whom I simply disagree, he actually makes me very angry. I suppose the fact that I think he’s quite a bad human being means I shouldn’t read or comment on his output, which ultimately I think is pretty irrelevant as he doesn’t demonstrate any understanding of or interest in politics in Ireland and the place of this State in the EU.

  6. Im pretty much center too Copernicus – thanks for your comments on this, it has helped me clarify things for myself too.

  7. You know, I really can’t look at that picture without thinking of the other “falling man”. The one in La Haine who is heard to repeat the phrase “So far, so good…So far, so good” as he falls to the ground.

    Whether or not the image should be published depends on the effect that it will have. Thankfully, the man is something of an anon, so there isn’t any family to offend. But our primary concern really should be whether or not publishing the image will have a positive or negative effect.

    Personally, I think that it is a powerful image, that brings home the reality of the situation to people. And that can be a good thing.

  8. On Sept. 12, 2001, Pennslyvania was not isolated with their coverage of people falling from the sky. It was all over the media in the USA and having worked at the WTC [prior to 09/11], it especially did in fact hit home. I lived 20 miles north of NYC at that time and with all the events of that day, we were just as any war torn nation you’d see on the news, fighter jets flying over head, helping people evacuate to the safety [?] of the suburbs, worrying about family and friends, communications knocked out unable to get in touch with anyone, witnessing a city such as NY being completely shut down, our nation, state, city, friends under attack … shoot … a ‘compelling’ photo of someone making a choice to end their life on their terms is the absolute least of it. The photo is not beautiful, nor ugly, it is what it is … a result of today’s world and that of one’s decision under circumstances [we couldn’t possibly fathom] despite whether it was forced, or consciously thought out to end their life.

    Presentation and respect does matter with such events. One site had the disgusting video of a human being ending their life to the tune of Free Falling as he fell to the earth. On the other hand, Ireland’s own Enya lent her music to the WTC Memorial sight as background music to people falling to earth and it is {actually}a very tasteful site with the true emotional impact of the events of that day and for decades to come. No commentary … just as it happened. It happened, no one can deny that, it can not be politically correct, it can not be white-washed … it happened and it was horrific and to present in any other manner than what it was [to me] is diminishing the victims, as well as their families. Obviously I do not advocate using such photos for shock value or personal gain, but will [reluctantly] agree folks have the right to publish ‘public’ photos.
    Perhaps the problem will eventually result with be a substantial focus on a general loss of ethics.

    I applaud Gavin’s insight and his distinction the images hit home because the victims are us, today, in our lifetime, we witnessed it. That alone makes the 09/11 attack much more horrific and in the ‘singularly’ unique. But don’t batch it with others to label all events as unique as there is a contradiction.

    Furthermore, the talk of politics, right or left or in the middle [in my opinion] has nothing to do with the event. Politics was absent on 09/11. It was evil … and evil has no place or prejudice in politics. It will divide more than two sides simply disagreeing.

  9. The 911 tapes were released today. Frantic calls for help
    from people about to die and EMS; Fire, Police were helpless. Is there a difference between visual and audio
    aesthetic value?

    I would have to agree more with the published photo than listening to these horiffic cries for help.

  10. You, sir, are one of the more intelligent internet posters I have come across. And I happen to agree with you.

  11. The Pentagon released its security tapes today and they prove to be very interesting. The cameras postioned on the outside of the building capture the impact of the plane. Compelling stuff.

  12. The falling man image is integral to and MUST not be erased from history. It captures a truth that many would rather forget, but, in its sublime reality, it is the only reminder we need of 11 Sept. The burning towers, the impact, the rubble, and tears, have been played over and over. The bell will always toll for them. The final choice, a final freedom, was the leap from the tower that day.

    I would be proud of America if, to represent all of the people who have died in terrorist attacks anywhere, adopted the Falling Man image.

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